Chef Michael Chiarello wears a bevy of hats – cook, restaurateur, vintner, businessman, food personality, father, husband – and he does it with aplomb.
Over the last twenty years, the gregarious chef has managed to stake a solid claim in an already-revered mecca of food and wine – California’s Napa Valley. As owner and chef of Bottega, he’s been applauded for his dedication to locality and sustainability, with a cuisine highlighting dishes from his Italian heritage. As a vintner, Chiarello has built his own respected wine estate, cultivating a handful of highly-rated cabernets, zinfandels, and syrahs. As a businessman, he’s made himself an indispensable kitchen accessory, whether you’re in need of a cookbook, chafer dishes, or an olive oil. As an entertainer, he’s headlined a few of his own shows in addition to appearances on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” and Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef”. And as a father and husband, I’m sure Eileen, his wife and business partner (and namesake of my favorite Chiarello vintage), has her own rave reviews of the man.
When I met Chiarello at the 2009 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, he was gracious and outgoing, promising me a Daily Blender interview. So in all of my excitement over covering next week’s inaugural Flavor! Napa Valley event, I sent a few questions over to Chef Chiarello to find out where he’s been, what he loves about the valley, and how many more hats he’s looking to wear.
Jennifer: Who were your cooking influences growing up?
Michael: My family by far was my largest influence. I used to go mushroom hunting with my mother, and she taught me to make prosciutto and salami. Even canning vegetables and fruits with my “nonna” (grandmother) created a culinary foundation for me as a kid.
J: How do you balance your family and restaurant time?
M: It’s one of the most challenging aspects of being a chef- one that I am constantly polishing. We have a family dinner once a week at Bottega, Monday nights are always spent at home and well…nothing touches my Sundays!
J: Why Napa Valley?
M: Napa is America’s Tuscany. It’s the only place I know in the US that the visitors come to eat and drink almost exclusively. There is an amazing collection of culinary talent – elevating the food bar to new heights which makes us all better chefs.
J: What can fans expect from your “Wine from a Chef’s Perspective” session at Flavor! Napa Valley?
M: An interesting tasting point of view on how wines are created for food. Why organic farming is important in winemaking and what can you taste in the glass. It will be a fun and definitely entertaining event – that should leave everyone smiling with purple stained teeth.
J: I read recently that you had signed on to work with Delta Airlines in designing an inflight menu. What have you learned from that experience so far? Is there a different thinking when creating more of a quick-and-easy type of meal?
M: Creating menus to be enjoyed at 30k feet is interesting. Your taste buds behave differently at that altitude, so tailoring flavors to ensure they translate on board has been fun. Delta and I are committed to serving the meals in a way that can be more interactive and create a lasting impression on their Business Elite customers.
J: How often are you tweeting and Facebooking?
M: Ha! Quite a lot. I’m all over Facebook and Twitter. I love to post pics from my travels or menus from an inspirational meal I have at another restaurant. It’s important to me to share an inside look with my fans.
J: I love the rumor about a possible Chiarello molecular gastronomy project. Any idea what your next move is? More TV? Another cookbook? Maybe a Bottega expansion?
M: At some level, all cooking is molecular gastronomy. Ha!
I just finished a new cookbook that will be out in 2013. And this fall, I’m looking forward to battling it out on Next Iron Chef “Super Chefs” on Food Network. After that, who knows what the future will bring tv-wise…am I done? Not quite yet.
As far as restaurants go, I love having one restaurant but I do still have a couple of items left on my bucket list…whether those are aspirations, dreams or a reality? Only time will tell.
*Photo credit: Michael Chiarello